Saturday,21 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Saturday,21 April, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The US strikes at Syria

Last week’s US air strikes against a Syrian airbase were designed to serve American interests and not those of the Syrian opposition

The US strikes at Syria

On 7 April, the US launched a missile attack on the Shayrat Airbase near the Syrian city of Homs in response to accusations that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had used chemical weapons in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed around 100 people, most of them civilians and a large number of them women and children, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Syrian human rights monitors.

The bombing of the airbase took many observers by surprise because it came at a time when the US administration was sending direct and indirect messages reassuring the Syrian regime that its overthrow was not a priority for Washington and that it did not see the importance of removing the regime leadership in the anticipated transitional phase.

Hours after the chemical weapons were dropped, the US dramatically changed this position, however. It confronted Russia at the UN Security Council, asserting that it would take unilateral action if a UN Resolution to form an international commission to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria was blocked.

The US strikes at Syria

US President Donald Trump gave orders for 59 Tomahawk missiles to be launched from US destroyers in the Mediterranean against the airbase from where the jets carrying the chemical weapons had taken off.

Many observers welcomed the strikes because they destroyed jets that have been bombarding the country for at least five years. Many believed that the US strikes were a prelude for military escalation and the start of the US reconfiguring its position on the Syrian conflict.

This is the second time the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against civilians. On 21 August 2013, the regime killed 1,429 people with Sarin gas, including 426 children, in Ghouta outside Damascus, thus crossing what the US had declared were “red lines.”

The US threatened to bomb the country in retaliation, but Damascus agreed under Russian auspices to hand over its stockpile of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons under UN Security Council Resolution 2118 in order to avoid an attack. The handover was completed in June 2014.

It is a mystery why the Syrian regime decided to use chemical weapons again, since it is a risky step that will likely stir up a maelstrom of international action against Damascus and reveal that the regime still possesses chemical weapons. Moreover, the regime has been making military gains with the help of Russia and Iran, and there is no need for it to resort to chemical weapons.

Some have speculated that there could be an internal struggle within the regime and a plan to terrorise the opposition as part of a plan to vacate various areas of the country. There could be a plot by Iran to corner the regime because it is drawing closer to Moscow at the expense of Tehran. The US response could force the regime to ask Iran for further help, observers say.

However, the most likely theory is that the US administration had “deceived” the Syrian regime through statements that the removal of Al-Assad was not a priority in Washington. The regime may have thought that this was a “green light” to do as it pleases similar to what happened in Iraq in 1990 when late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein interpreted a conversation with US ambassador April Glaspie as a “green light” for a foray into Kuwait.

The US position has now changed, especially after Trump spoke about the “vacuum” that the previous Obama administration had caused in the region. “Today, I will fulfil my responsibility on this matter,” Trump said, describing Al-Assad as “a dictator who used horrible chemical weapons against innocent civilians.”

Guided by a US Senate resolution banning dealings with the Al-Assad regime, Trump ordered limited strikes against Syria. These did not greatly impact the regime’s military capabilities since bombing one of the regime’s 129 military bases is unlikely to have much impact. The strikes did not aim to overthrow Al-Assad, but they may have been an indicator that the US is reformulating its position on Syria and its intention to impose its will on the actors in the conflict.

Many members of the Syrian opposition believe that the US strikes were more political than military, aiming to send messages to the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, as well as the Europeans and US regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Trump wanted to send a strong political message to the Russian leadership that it is not alone in controlling Syrian affairs, observers say. Former US president Barack Obama did not do this, causing the US to take a step back in the region and allowing the Russians to manage the conflict.

Trump’s message to Iran was possibly a prelude for stronger ones, opposition observers say, adding that Trump has repeatedly stated his rejection of the US nuclear deal with Iran, promised to contain Iran and dismantle its strategic link to Russia, and to limit its influence in Syria.

When asked what the US would do against Iranian militias in Syria, he said without hesitation that “they will get messages.” Perhaps this was the first of other messages to come.

Trump’s message to the Syrian regime is that the era of crimes and unaccountability is over and that there is now no option but for the regime to accept a political solution. The US strikes gave its allies a major boost, since they were an invitation to Turkey to return to the US alliance based on understandings reached with Russia. They were a reassurance to Saudi Arabia that US strategy complies with Saudi goals, and they could result in a revival of the armed opposition groups fighting in northern Syria.

The US strikes were also a message to Europe, which has been holding conferences over recent months on rebuilding Syria after the war in what the US views as indirect interference. There is also a domestic message in that Trump wants to tell the American public that he is a president “with a conscience” and courage when it comes to defending humanitarian values, unlike the hesitant Obama.

But the US military involvement in Syria has not been made definitive, and it is likely that these messages will be enough for the US for the time being, at least until each side changes its position accordingly.

The strikes will not overthrow the Syrian regime since Washington does not see that as its goal. However, they could facilitate such a strategy, since Republican senator John McCain said one day after the US strikes that “Al-Assad will not be removed at the hands of US forces but by trained and prepared forces of the Free Syrian Army launched from a safe zone.”

Ibrahim Abdullah, an opposition member, does not give great importance to the US strikes, asserting that they were not for the sake of the opposition but for other goals. “For six years, Washington was ambivalent when dealing with Syria. It supported the political opposition in confronting the regime and a military opposition that did not change the balance of power in the region or threaten Israel’s security,” he said.

“For years the US refused to give effective weapons to the moderate Syrian armed opposition on the pretext that they could fall into the wrong hands. It did not take a solid position in the face of the repeated Russian vetoes at the UN supporting the Syrian regime and preventing it from falling. Nor did it take action when the regime used chemical weapons the first time round because it was concerned about the use of weapons in an area close to Israel.”

“Russia, Iran and Al-Assad will re-evaluate the situation after receiving Trump’s messages, and they will be forced to deal with the situation more cautiously,” Abdullah said.

According to Syrian opposition figure Saeed Moqbel, “the US strikes and the messages they send do not mean that the Syrian regime, Iran or Russia will accept a fair political solution. This will not happen unless the US continues to push back Russia’s military monopoly in Syria in order to impose a formula that allows for a political transition based on the Geneva principles.”

The US could have imposed a solution some years ago, observers say, halting the fighting and the air strikes. It could have forced the Syrian regime into a political solution, but it chose not to do this for six years, and this should be taken into consideration when trying to understand its present goals.

Trump’s position on “punishing” Al-Assad and his regime will be a test of the seriousness of his promises. However, it seems unlikely that Trump’s developing strategy in Syria will be determined by humanitarian concerns.

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